The Professional Try-Hard Is Dead, But You Still Need to Return to the Office

Though his views are far less pitchfork-and-torch-y, Klotz, the management professor, agrees that there is a sense of threat posed by the changed landscape of the workplace for the corner-office cohort. “I don’t think it’s nefarious or anything negative on the part of these leaders,” he explains. They’re just following the playbook that’s gotten them—and the economy—this far, reasoning, ‘If we would all just get back together, we can get back on track like it was in 2019’—which was a banner year for most companies, by the way,” Klotz says. “But you have workers who are saying, ‘All that’s good and well, but this is better for our lives.’” In an email, Klotz adds that, yes, of course employees resist having any workplace benefit (like the flexibility of remote work) taken away, but research has also shown that employees push back less if given a fair explanation. “I think that’s part of the tension right now,” he explains. “Employees who like working remotely but are being asked to return to the office are asking their leaders WHY.”

Why, indeed. It’s the question of the hour raised with every morning alarm, every increasingly stern RTO email, every not-so-theoretical conversation I have had with my editor about this strange evolution of work, as my own office began to shift from pleasantly voluntary in- person meetings to required (part-time) attendance. Here I will risk a degree of try-hardist edging to say that I’d previously enjoyed spending Tuesdays at my Manhattan desk as a lifestyle choice, employer-grade air conditioning being one of the few things you can’t absorb over videoconference. But why did my feelings about the office shift from neutral to total disorientation the minute it become a fulfillment of some external requirement, some other decision-maker’s ruling, rather than an expression of my agency as a working adult?

I felt the dissonance on a visceral level when I was paging through an advance copy of Smart Brevity, a new handbook about “the power of saying more with less,” to be published September 20 by Jim VandeHei, Mike Allen, and Roy Schwartz, veterans of Politico and founders of Axios—two very good news outlets that have prided themselves on the particular formal innovations of blogging (Politico), bullet points (Axios), and constant exhortations for their audience to “be smart” (also Axios).

The book, which will now serve as something of a victory lap following last month’s $525 million sale of Axios to Cox Enterprises, touts the importance of direct, well-formatted communication for earning the trust and respect of your audience/employees, then promises to teach readers how to become miniature crusaders of clarity via a “revolutionary system and strategy” that the authors have dubbed “Smart Brevity.” It’s a well-timed hook: For anyone in the managerial set currently at a loss for how to wield influence sans in-person, the chance to learn the secret to write more powerful emails meetings is certainly appealing. And you could do a lot worse than turning to three successful journalists for a primer on communication skills.

The problem, however, is that most corporate communications suck because most people simply aren’t professional writers, and in lieu of figuring out how to cram an MFA’s worth of actual writing advice into 200 pages, Smart Brevity resorts to consultant-class platitudes, like “singling out the person you want to reach clarifies things big-time,” and recommendations like “do a real gut check. Is this point or detail or concept essential?” Try as the authors might to rebrand a headline as a “tease” and bottom-line takeaways as an “axiom,” Smart Brevity‘s attempts to pass off foundational concepts of good writing into some secret, proprietary technology often just feel silly; the exhortations on bullet point/GIF implementation and a whole chapter dedicated to emoji use veer toward insulting. A good portion of the book consists of before-and-after examples where some imagined long-winded paragraph gets made over in the Smart Brevity style; the resulting effect is not so much a lesson on succinctness as it is a clue about which types of people are socially encouraged to communicate in pings of authoritative masculine curtness.

I’d be lying if I didn’t emit the occasional juvenile laugh over lines like “Brevity is confidence. Length is fear,” and explanations for “STRONG” one-syllable words versus “WEAK” words (Do one of you guys want to tell me why the verb “bitch” is listed as an example of the former?). For a book obsessed with clarity, it’s hilariously redundant. But that isn’t the point, is it? (who really thinks that the secret to workplace success lies in Slack’s Giphy library?) The irony, of course, is that Politico and Axios made their core business and reputation by subscribers providing news-making and actionable scoops—the snazzy, emoji-laden bullet-pointing of the news is merely branding. And that branding, apparently, is the current point. This is a book with a snappy name and zippy catchphrases meant for white-collar strivers to carry around, or, as Zitron might say, a matter of aesthetics. It will do just as well to telegraph that you’re interested in solving the awesome mystery of effective communication as to actually bother with the work of it. It’s perfect professional-try-hard fare that concerns itself very little with how the wordiness of your speeches is probably not the biggest factor in how disgruntled your workplace feels about RTO.

what ties Smart Brevity, the Crying CEO, and general corporate try-hardism all together is this shared concern with the appearance of hypercompetence over the actual thing. Why concern yourself with the complex factors causing employee burnout or worker disillusionment or midday napping when you’ve convinced yourself (and are attempting to reconvince your workers) that it’s just a matter of writing the most poetic (but also effective) LinkedIn post?

What’s clear—and what’s behind the reason that professional try-hards are flailing so fantastically—is that the very concept of corporate competence itself has become a joke. The ideals that white-collar striving is built upon having started to crumble: Imagine believing in true “innovation” in a world where Meta, formerly the most exciting company on earth, is reduced to hitting copy and paste. Imagine still buying into the corporate ladder in any sector where performance evaluations might be rife with racial disparities, or where the executives have essentially admitted on the stand that their entire industry is just a game of roulette. Imagine having faith at all in any idea of ​​“corporate good” when the guy celebrated for years as the “one moral CEO in America” is now the subject of a rape investigation (that CEO has denied the allegations). Just last month, Adam Neumann, the disgraced WeWork founder whose implosion was so well-documented that it got turned into prestige television, reportedly received a $350 million second chance for pretty much the same idea he ran to ruin last time.

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